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Art & artists

Anselm Kiefer's dark light

— March 2015

Article read level: Academic

Associated media

Anselm Kiefer, The Five Foolish Virgins, 1983

Kiefer’s serious symbolism is that of a painter in the classical tradition who rejects classicism

Anselm Kiefer by Daniel Arasse

This book’s intention is stated in its initial appearance: monochrome, weighty, serious, full of symbolism.  This is not a gallery review designed to engage without too much intellectual effort.  It is a book by an academic for academics.  Reproductions are numerous and well integrated with the text.  But, reflecting the austerity of the tonal and colour range in the work of German artist Anselm Kiefer (b.1945), they do little to relieve the sombre cast of the publication.  This ‘documentary’ quality is driven home by the very ambition of the scholarly undertaking.  The text is so extensive that a small plain typeface has been imposed and the eye finds itself straining on every page to relate to a text requiring lucidity of presentation to match the complexity of analysis.  This is not to say that Arasse is obscure in a scholarly sense, simply that the presentation has been forced into a format with very little visual relief.

Arasse recognizes the difficulty of attempting a strict chronological account of a life and career of such complexity, with its ebb and flow of concepts and projects.  Instead, he selects themes in the work and traces their significance and influence.  He sees Kiefer’s immensely varied and heterogeneous output as representing a labyrinth that is not here to disorientate, but to provide a valuable key to understanding, unifying works in which ‘the same thought recurs [despite big differences] in appearance and theme’.  Potential confusion is added by Kiefer’s practice of taking up a work finished many years previously and painting over it to reflect new ideas and preoccupations.  The resultant palimpsest carries the trace of the artist’s development.

For Kiefer such complex reworking also symbolizes the unity of the cosmos and Arasse traces this idea through the show at the Yvon Lambert Gallery in 1996 and a series entitled ‘Cette obscure clarté qui tombe des étoiles’ (‘This dark light that falls from the stars’).  Picking up on this theme, Arasse chooses as his first significant historical point the 39th Venice Biennale, in 1980, at which Kiefer and Georg Baselitz (b.1938) were selected to represent Germany.  While the decision  to include them seemed logically to emerge from their recent inclusion in the ‘New Fauves’ – a group dedicated to the breaking of the silence around Germany’s role in the Second World War – it provoked, in certain critical quarters, a violent reaction against the tendency.  Related to this thread is what Arasse refers to as ‘The Arts of Memory’ and again the question becomes ‘what to remember?’.

One of the major sources for Kiefer’s striking imagery at this time is the overwhelming architecture of the two Temples of the Nordic Heroes of the Eternal Guard.  Dating from 1935, these temples were the inspiration of Paul Ludwig Troost to celebrate the ‘most sacred’ of all the Nazi rites, remembering the martyrdom of 23 of Hitler’s companions in the failed putsch of 1923.  But this, Arasse reminds us, is Kiefer in Nietzschean mode, railing against history’s tendency to hamper life’s ability to transform itself by wedding it to the past.  For Kiefer, recall often carries the hope of redemption or at least recognizes its need.

Kiefer’s interest in the cosmos brings him to humankind’s relationship with the gods and to the threads that trace other mythologies and cultures – Nordic, German, Jewish, the ancient world – opening up vast new vistas.  The difficulty of Arasse’s task is made clear when he attempts to unify Kiefer’s very diverse oeuvre by analysing his style.  His first problem is to find a useful definition of ‘style’ and here he reverts of Roland Barthes’ distinction between ‘writing’ (more culturally located) and ‘style’, which must exhibit a certain personal ‘rawness’.  This brings Arasse to the apparent paradox of the use of real materials (straw, for example).  Kiefer, Arasse feels, practices the principle ‘ut pictura poesis’ (‘as is painting, so is poetry’) and this locates him in the classical tradition that assumes that works of art have their own ‘aura’.  The use of natural materials places him in an anti-classical tradition (that is, anti-mimetic).  Arasse confronts the paradox head on, but I found his resolution (the integration of these materials in the works’ iconography) a little contrived.  This is a subject that deserves wider discussion than space allows here.

There is of course another way of approaching the analysis of the works and one that perhaps might meet with the artist’s approval: disregard the commentary and look at the output.  And this plentifully illustrated book provides you with the means to do it.  Kiefer’s imagination shines through his low-key imagery providing the light and colour that is deliberately withheld.

My criticisms at the outset of the overly austere presentation can perhaps be justified by the fact that this is the ‘Compact Edition’.  But come on!  There is ample space at the margins of the illustrations for a much larger and clearer font so that the casual visual tourist can be attracted rather than pushed away.  This is the growing group of enthusiasts that support the success of exhibitions.

Anselm Kiefer  by Daniel Arasse is published by  Thames and Hudson.  Compact edition,  £24.95.


David Ecclestone
Art historian

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